Christine Lee will work alongside Steve Groeger, superintendent of recreation, until his retirement at the end of 2014. Lee will take over the position in 2015. (Photo by Stacey Pastorella.)

Steve Groeger to retire after 32 years, Christine Lee to fill position

As Steve Groeger looks ahead to Lawrence Township Community Day, scheduled for Oct. 5, the longtime superintendent of recreation reflects on a memory from 2006.

“The one that stands out the most is the year that we tried to break the Guinness world record for most candles on a birthday cake,” Groeger said. “There were a number of years I tried to do some sort of a Guinness world record, but this was the one that I really thought we were going to do.”

According to a report in the Trenton Times, elected officials lit 29,159 candles, one for each township resident, in an attempt to beat the record of 27,413. The cake was presented in honor of Captain James Lawrence’s birthday. (The website for Guinness World Records lists the current record for candles on a cake, set in 2008, at 48,523.)

“It looked like a lava field with all the wax going down the cake, but we got them all lit, and we got rejected by Guinness because, with the wax on the cake, it made the cake inedible,” Groeger said.

Groeger has experienced a number of memorable community events since becoming Lawrence Township’s superintendent of recreation in 1982. The current year marks a different kind of milestone for Groeger, who plans to retire from his position at the end of 2014.

Groeger, a 1968 graduate of Lawrence High School, began working as an engineer after graduating from college. However, he soon discovered that the field of recreation was a natural fit for him. He had always loved playing sports, including football, baseball, swimming and bowling.

“I worked as an engineer for a while, but found that I was spending virtually all of my free time doing things that were recreational, whether it was coaching, or organizing leagues,” Groeger said.

He was working toward a degree in recreation when the position with Lawrence Township became available.

Over the last 32 years, there have been significant changes in the township’s recreation department. When Groeger first began as superintendent, there was no pool at Lawrence High School, no organized senior center, and no full-day summer camp offered.

“Over the years, things have changed dramatically,” Groeger said. “We offer a lot more programming now. We offer full-day programs during the summer, we have access to the pool, we have a swim team, we built Village Park, we built the senior center.”

Although many associate the department of recreation with sports, Groeger said that it also includes a variety of things that people enjoy in their leisure time, like art classes and events such as concerts.

One of the most memorable community events for Groeger was the yearlong celebration of the township’s 300th anniversary in 1997. The tricentennial event paid homage to the history of Lawrence Township. General Norman Schwarzkopf served as the grand marshal of the 1997 Memorial Day parade. And on Feb. 20, the mayor of Maidenhead, England visited to mark the anniversary of the date in 1697 that Lawrence Township was founded under its original name, Maidenhead Township.

Former mayor and councilman Greg Puliti said Groeger has always been a big asset to the town.

“Steve always tried to include everybody in recreation,” he said, noting that aside from getting people to participate in sports, Groeger also encouraged use of the senior center, working with veterans, and participation in other township events.

Groeger does not have definite plans for retirement, although he and his wife, Jo Ann, a retired teacher, plan to spend time with their family, which includes three grandchildren. Groeger said that the support of his family has been important over the years, especially when he has worked at events on holidays, evenings and weekends.

Those sacrifices, however, have often had a positive impact. Groeger said the thing he will miss the most in his retirement is the interaction with others. He said that people have approached him around town to say that they enjoyed a program or an event.

“That’s what I think our role is,” he said, “to keep people happy, keep them enjoying life and doing things.”

Christine Lee will assume the position of Superintendent of Recreation after working alongside Groeger through the end of December, a process that began on Sept. 8.

“A lot of people say ‘oh, you’ve got big shoes to fill,’ but I’ll never fill Steve’s shoes. He’s a Lawrence Township icon,” Lee said. “I just want the residents of Lawrence to know that their programs are going to be here.”

Lee said she doesn’t foresee any immediate changes in the services offered by the recreation department unless something is requested by a significant number of residents.

“My only hope for the future is that the residents of Lawrence Township will be as content and satisfied with my delivery of services as they have with Steve’s delivery of services,” Lee said.

Like Groeger, Lee has an appreciation for the field of recreation that began at an early age. It was receiving a Presidential award during the physical fitness tests at school that inspired her to keep pushing herself in athletics.

“I was hooked on gymnastics and running and track and tennis. So I know how vital it is to kids’ self esteem and learning good skill sets and having healthy behavior and having a fun lifestyle,” Lee said. “I’m completely invested in people doing something active and fun.”

Lee has previously worked in a variety of positions. Most recently, she was employed by Educational Testing Services in Princeton. Before that, she worked for HomeFront as the director of the Lawrence Community Center and the HomeFront supportive services programs.

Lee said she has noticed a lot of similarities between her work for the township and her experience running community programs for HomeFront. She said that she is also familiar with the Lawrence Township community due to her work in the area over the past 13 years.

“I’ve always felt a close connection to the residents and employees here in Lawrence Township,” she said.

Lee said that she is looking forward to community events because she will have an opportunity to meet more people and begin new business relationships and friendships. For this reason, she is enthusiastic about the township’s upcoming Community Day, an event that has also provided memorable moments for Groeger throughout the years.

“I can’t wait for Community Day,” Lee said. “I used to participate in Community Day. Now, I will help Steve arrange Community Day. So, it’ll be a completely new perspective, but I really look forward to it.”